An education in designing the student experience

Interior design needs to deliver effective learning environments and appeal to the aspirations and working methods of today’s students

With universities and other education establishments competing for the best students, the expectation of graduates and undergraduates for improved facilities brings fresh challenges for managers of academic property portfolios.

At commercial interior design company Paragon, for example, teams are on site with five different education institutions, namely: University of Derby, Loughborough University, Sheffield Hallam University, University of Bedfordshire and at the University of Warwick, in partnership with Jaguar Land Rover. Why so many? What’s causing this trend for design improvements across educational estates?

This is all about defining and delivering the “student experience”. This is now measured and tabulated into league tables and every further educational establishment is seeking ways to improve their offering.

Property portfolio owners and academics are working together to uncover new ways to support student activities both academic and social. As a result, many are increasingly turning to interior specialists to help them create a competitive edge within the academic arena. For many, the approach has proved enlightening, transforming dull and uninspiring spaces into facilities that stimulate and excite.

The innovation doesn’t cease there. Students now expect their living quarters to reflect the level of investment they are making in their education. Flat-screen TVs, high-spec finishes, en-suite bathrooms and secure accommodation (complete with CCTV) are now the norm, rather than the exception. The bar has been well and truly raised across the board.

Gone are the days of the atomised student studying alone. Paragon has introduced curved seating, rotating lecture seating and round tables to encourage students to share ideas and remove psychological barriers, allowing all students to be seen and heard.

Students demand more, so make every seat the best seat. Give every student the best seat in the classroom, and with mobile furniture becoming a designer’s choice, students get equal access to content, teachers and displays.

Furthermore, students demand choice. Different postures suit different people and learning scenarios. Providing a variety of learning spaces allows students and teachers to choose their most productive learning environment.

Flexibility is key here. The classroom is changing, but the traditional lecture is not redundant. Flexible classroom furniture allows an easy switch between traditional and collaborative learning to suit multiple teaching and learning scenarios. What’s more, advancing technology means the library is no longer just for reading. Library spaces need to cater for socialising, teaching, learning and collaborative work, whilst retaining quiet areas for private study. This goes hand in hand with a ‘learning happens everywhere’ ethos. Make the best use of hallways, cafes and social areas; with the right furniture, equipment and technology in place, every space is a learning space.

Finally, let the outside in. The outdoors is no longer a distraction for students but a stimulation for learning and creativity. Let in views and natural light rather than blocking them out.

In short, it is crucial to make the most of a college or university’s biggest (and often overlooked) assets.

Paragon’s track record of creating new-look teaching environments, collaboration zones, chill-out areas, accommodation and restaurants has helped facilities departments to explore new possibilities not previously thought possible or even appropriate. Innovative thinking during the design process, the introduction of exciting new materials and the application of bold colours can create spaces that win favour with students and influence their decision about which university or college best suits their aspirations. It is colouring their opinion of the potential student experience.

There is a perception that inspiring design can increase the cost of a project. However, by adopting a design-and-build approach, you can ensure strict adherence to predetermined budgets and timescales, creating new spaces that far exceed the expectations of those involved in the project. 

Author Alan Hardy is CEO of Paragon Interiors Group Plc W:

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